Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson

AGO 1995 No. 2 -
Attorney General Christine Gregoire


A college may increase the vacation leave of its employees without thereby increasing their "salaries" for purposes of interpreting salary increase limits contained in the 1993-95 state operating budget.

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                                                                February 24, 1995

Desmond P. McArdle, President
Bellingham Technical College
3028 Lindbergh Avenue                                                                                                                                 
Bellingham, WA   98225-1599                                                                                                            

                                                                                                Cite as:  AGO 1995 No. 2

Dear Mr. McArdle:

            By letter previously acknowledged, you have asked for our opinion on a question that we paraphrase as follows:

            Does a condition on an appropriation in the 1993-95 operating budget that prohibits certain "salary increases" likewise prohibit additional vacation leave?

            For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that the answer to your question is "no".  An increase in vacation leave would not constitute a "salary increase" under the provision about which you inquire.


            By way of background, you explain that certain classified employees of Bellingham Technical College wish to negotiate for the same vacation schedule that applies to classified employees at community and four-year colleges.[1]  Your letter states that for most of the affected employees, adoption of this schedule would result in an increase in vacation leave.  You seek our opinion because you are uncertain whether an increase in vacation leave would constitute a "salary increase" within the meaning of an appropriation that prohibits certain salary increases.

            Although you do not specifically identify the statutory prohibition, we assume you refer to section 602 of the 1993-95 biennial operating budget.  This provision appropriates funds for the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges and contains the following condition in subsection (7):

                        (7) For fiscal year 1995, colleges allocated funds from appropriations in this section shall not grant salary increases from any fund source, but may grant increments to classified staff and full-time faculty whose annual base salary is less than $45,000.

Laws of 1994, 1st Sp. Sess., ch. 6, § 602(7).

            The answer to your question turns on the meaning of "salary increases" as used in the appropriation about which you inquire.  More specifically, it depends on whether "salary", as there used, is so broad as to include vacation leave.

            In determining the meaning of language used in legislation, we are guided by rules of statutory construction.  Two are particularly relevant here.  First, in the absence of a statutory definition, a term used in legislation is given its usual and ordinary meaning.[2]  Davis v. Employment Security Dep't, 108 Wn.2d 272, 737 P.2d 1262 (1987).  Second, the context in which a statutory term is used should be considered in determining its meaning.  State v. Wanrow, 88 Wn.2d 221, 559 P.2d 548 (1977).

            The term "salary" ordinarily is defined as "fixed compensation paid regularly (as by the year, quarter, month, or week) for services".  Webster's Third New International Dictionary 2003 (1981); see also Black's Law Dictionary 1337 (6th rev. ed. 1990) (defining "salary" as "fixed periodical compensation paid for services rendered").  In the context of a constitutional provision providing for the fixing of "compensation by salaries", the state supreme court similarly noted that "salary" refers to compensation fixed by time and not by the amount of service rendered.  Cox v. Holmes, 14 Wash. 255, 44 P. 262 (1896).  Prior opinions of this office also have so defined "salary".  See AGO 1974 No. 15, AGO 1988 No. 29.  These opinions explain that "salary" and "compensation" ordinarily have different meanings, "compensation" being a broad term encompassing anything of value given in return for services, including fringe benefits, whereas "salary" is a more limited term, signifying compensation paid in money at fixed intervals.  AGO 1974 No. 15, at 3-4; AGO 1988 No. 29, at 4-5.

            We next consider the nature of vacation leave.  Such leave essentially authorizes absence from work for designated periods without loss of pay.  See RCW 43.01.040.  As such, it certainly has value and may be considered part of compensation.  However, it is not a set amount of money paid at a fixed interval and, thus, does not appear to fall within the ordinary meaning of the term "salary".  Nor does granting additional vacation leave ordinarily alter either the fixed dollar amount or the fixed payment interval components of "salary".  Take, for example, an employee whose salary is $2,500 per month, who accrues one day of vacation leave a month.  Increasing that employee's vacation leave accrual to 1.5 days per month alters neither the fixed dollar amount of the employee's payment ($2,500) nor the fixed interval when payment is made (each month).[3]

            This conclusion also is bolstered by the context in which the term "salary increase" is used.  It is part of a limitation on the authority of technical and community colleges to spend funds.  In its ordinary sense, a salary increase requires the expenditure of additional funds.  Granting additional vacation leave does not necessitate such an expenditure, however, at least absent a situation where staff must be increased to cover for a vacationing employee.  Thus, giving "salary increase" its ordinary meaning also is consistent with the context in which the Legislature has used the term.

            We trust that this opinion will be of assistance to you.


Sr. Assistant Attorney General

(206) 753-2536

    [1]This schedule is set forth in WAC 251-22-060.  Under its graduated scale, employees earn a certain number of vacation days a year, ranging from 12 to 22, depending on their years of continuous state employment.

    [2]The Legislature could have defined the term "salary increase" in the legislation about which you inquire and had it done so, that definition would control.  Seattle v. Shepherd, 93 Wn.2d 861, 613 P.2d 1158 (1980).  But it did not.

    [3]We recognize AGLO 1978 No. 28 concluded that under its specific facts, an increase in vacation leave would result in a salary increase.  As that letter opinion explains, its conclusion is confined to the specific and unique facts that it considered—an annualized salary expressly paid on a per diem basis.  According to the letter opinion, the employees there involved were paid on the basis of a per diem rate, contractually defined as "the annual contract amount divided by the annual contract days."  AGLO 1978 No. 28, at 2.  Essentially, the opinion concluded that granting additional vacation leave reduced the "annual contract days" and thereby increased the per diem rate.  Its conclusion does not extend beyond those facts.